SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Judge Russell Hom was about to do something most jurists are taught to avoid.
Not long after being appointed to one of California’s busiest courts, the former prosecutor and defense attorney handled a heartbreaking domestic violence dispute. While not yet a father, the 47-year-old judge cringed at the cruel details of the case and the impact the jury’s decision would have on the parents’ children.
One day while commuting home from the courthouse in downtown Sacramento, Hom relaxed his judicial guard and allowed his emotions to influence perhaps the most significant choice he would ever make.
“I heard a physical abuse case and the kids were just adorable. I went home and I asked my wife if she would be interested in adopting a child,” Hom said while recounting the story from his chambers at the Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse. “We were very, I think, content being a double-income, no-kid family, and then I got on the bench.”
More than 15 years later, Hom is preparing to take on his next challenge as presiding judge of the Sacramento County Superior Court, where he hopes to bolster and highlight the court’s family and juvenile delinquency departments. On Jan. 1, he will become the court’s first Asian-American presiding judge, according to records dating back to 1961.
As with the adoption of his daughter, Hom had others’ interests in mind when he decided earlier this summer to run for presiding judge.
Like many of his colleagues, Hom was surprised when assistant presiding judge David Abbott – viewed as the favorite to replace current presiding judge David De Alba – announced he was retiring.
The news created a sudden void, and as the summer stretched on judges trickled into Hom’s chambers and urged him to run. Many viewed him as the best candidate to avoid a contested election, and though Hom had resisted calls to run in previous elections he relented. And he won.
Former assemblyman and current executive officer of Sacramento Superior Lloyd Connelly describes Hom as one of the court’s most capable and generous judges. He says Hom was there when his court and community needed him after Abbott decided to retire.
“He won without a real contest here, which is a measure of the depth of support that he enjoys,” Connelly said. “There’s universal, I think, not just support, but satisfaction and confidence in his ability to do the job.”
Hom grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, and his interest in the law was primed by a high school social science teacher. A former lawyer, the teacher encouraged Hom and his classmates to run a mock trial. Hom was chief counsel and his co-counsel was Chris Darden, who decades later played a defining role as co-prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
After graduating from UC Hastings College of Law in 1981, Hom and his wife headed northeast from San Francisco when he took a job at the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office. He’s been a Sacramento resident ever since, with stints in private practice before reaching the bench.
Becoming a judge was never in the cards and Hom claims that he was on the way to relocating his firm from Sacramento to the Bay Area when the governor’s office and others persuaded him to submit his name for a judgeship. Seeking to diversify the state courts, former Governor Gray Davis appointed Hom to Sacramento Superior Court in 2002 based on Hom’s decades of legal experience and strong ties to Sacramento’s Asian community.
The significance of Hom’s election can’t be overstated to the legal and community organizations he’s served, said former head of the Asian Pacific Bar Association of Sacramento Jerry Chong. The longtime civil and criminal lawyer compared Hom’s election to the rise of Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the first non-white chief justice of the California Supreme Court and a Sacramento native.
“For us Asians, we feel a very strong sense of accomplishment and achievement,” Chong said. “This is like one more brick in a house of diversity and equality that we’re trying to build.”
Deciphering what Hom is like outside of the court isn’t easy. The judge veers from questions about hobbies and career milestones and pushes the conversation back to the work being performed by his fellow judges or mentors like his high school teacher, Chong and Art Scotland, former presiding justice of a state appeals court.
But mementos that dot his small office inside the dilapidated main courthouse show he’s a fan of the quirky comedy television series “The Office,” an admirer of former President Barack Obama and a skilled woodworker.
“I enjoy making pens, tables, bowls and other different stuff,” Hom said while pointing to a collection of homemade, finely polished pens, adding that the hours spent at his personal woodshop come in particularly handy during the holidays.
For the last 17 years Hom has handled criminal and civil trials and served on a variety of committees and most recently as grand jury adviser. After spending the last several weeks since the election going around the court on a listening tour, the once “reluctant candidate” is now certain he can become a reliable and sturdy presence for a court with more than 650 employees.
In recent years, California lawmakers and voters have embraced a variety of criminal justice reforms in hopes of decreasing prison populations by reducing penalties for some drug offenses, walking back decades-old determinate sentencing laws and in the process giving judges more discretion. As the state evolves from its “tough on crime” approach, Hom says it will be critical to boost resources and acknowledge the positive effects that family, dependency and delinquency courts can have on the Sacramento community.
While he hopes to improve all aspects of the court – and perhaps witness the groundbreaking for Sacramento’s long-awaited new courthouse – Hom aims to be a champion for the often underappreciated arms of the court during his two-year term.
“If the members of this public could see the commitment that some of the judges I’ve had contact with over the last month have, not just coming in to do a job and get paid, but in terms of improving this community, they would be astounded,” Hom said. “The judges at the family law and delinquency courts make what I believe are the most difficult decisions of any judge on this bench.”